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CROGHAN, EMMA-KATE: STRANGE PLANET

Emma-Kate Croghan's new film, Strange Planet, is again about love and life - but different, she tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

Emma Kate Croghan was a waif-like figure thrown into the 1996 Cannes festival frenzy with her debut film, Love and Other Catastrophes, produced by Stavros Efthymiou. The weeks before the festival, she had been on unemployment benefits. This year (1999), Croghan and Efthymiou – who has since changed his name to Kazantzidis – were back in Cannes with her second film, Strange Planet.

"Croghan's focus is on her film, not herself"

In 1996, me and my photographer dragged a jet lagged Emma Kate out of bed (not physically - used a mobile phone) the morning after her arrival, to pose for photos by the pool at the Majestic. The irony of this moment is a quintessential Australian fairy story. There was Emma Kate, petite, poor and posing poolside, her last dole cheque crumbled somewhere in her luggage, while sharing limelight space with stars and filmmakers from around the world.

This year, the heady rush of adrenalin is muted by experience. There is only one first time.

And like so many filmmakers, Croghan's focus is on her film, not herself. She finds it uncomfortable to be the centre of media attention - unless the subject is film. Stavros Kazantzidis, a film school graduate and her close filmmaking colleague, likewise. Our conversation begins with the obvious: what's this Strange Planet?

"It’s another romantic comedy," says Croghan, "so there’ll be a tendency to compare them [her two films], that’s unavoidable, but it’s a bit sad, because it’s very different."

"we came to Sydney to explore a city with fresh eyes."

Not only are the characters very different, but as Kazantzidis points out, so is the setting. Shot in Sydney (Love and Other Catastrophes was shot in Melbourne, the team’s home town) Strange Planet is "visually spectacular in its use of Sydney, showing a rich tapestry of Sydney life."

Two groups of friends are searching for their ‘selves’. Judy (Claudia Karvan) hopes that focusing on her career will help overcome her father complex. Alice (Naomi Watts) is morally strict but this is causing inertia problems. Sally (Alice Garner) is a party girl open to all experiences. Ewan (Tom Long) the lawyer hates the law and doesn’t believe in love. Joel (Aaron Jeffrey) gets a huge shock when his wife leaves him. Neil (Felix Williamson) is desperate for love – any woman will do, he thinks. In the year between two New Year’s Eves, the six characters are flung further and further from what they hope to find, until fate steps in.

Croghan, who wrote it from a concept by Kazantzidis, says "we came to Sydney to explore a city with fresh eyes." Using time lapse photography and inner city locations, the film "looks pretty good, actually," she says. "Clean and simple I hope, but that’s sometimes hard to achieve."

Although different to her first film, Croghan says at heart it is still preoccupied with "the same things - love and life. The characters and story developed at the same time and the writing took longer – the rumination period was lengthy," she says. "It’s Stavros’ concept, and we worked on it together. During the shoot I took more charge of the script and we did a lot of rewriting. There was a lot of effort into the writing."

"It’s about work, friendship and love, and how to make it all work,"

Strange Planet, says Croghan, is a title to evoke various notions, including the proximity of a new millenium, our own planet getting smaller, and the fact that the story takes place over one calendar year, with themes of self determination and fate. The story revolves – literally – around six characters, three male and three female, who circle each other "but don’t collide until the time is right" – at the end.

"It’s about work, friendship and love, and how to make it all work," she says. "the audience is pretty broad for the film, 16 to 35 – people like us, basically."

The comedy is situation and dialogue driven, says Croghan, and because it is a comedy, the story needs to be put forward. "It’s not tricksy…"

Cinematographer Justin Brickle comments on Croghan’s love of the screwball comedies of the 40s and 50s; "She is a big fan of films like It happened One Night, with its classic two shot simplicity, loose frame so the actors can move around. It takes place from one New Year’s eve to the next, symbolic of the cycle of life and there are a lot of locations with overhead shots and circular themes."

Claudia Karvan, who plays Judie ("her journey is to open her heart and to go with younger guys not use older ones"), says the script is "verbose, almost Woody Allen-ish…lots of talk, often fast."

"Emma Kate seems to have been breast fed on movies" Claudia Karvan

Karvan, who is just two months younger than her director ("It’s unique! Directors I’ve worked with are usually 12 or 13 years older!") has great respect for Croghan. "Emma Kate seems to have been breast fed on movies; she has great memory for film dialogue and a secure, cerebral approach to how the film is made. There is a reason for everything." Karvan’s co-stars are Alice Garner, Naomi Watts, Aaron Jeffrey, Tom Long, Felix Williamson and Hugo Weaving in a key supporting role.

"Casting was hard," says Croghan. "We wanted young, unknowns who were terrific actors."

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